From Division III denial to SEC football, the journey of nation’s No. 1 junior college RB
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The road to success is prone to collisions, and Mark Thompson has had a few on his journey to the SEC.
Like most athletes who take the junior college route, academics were an issue for Thompson at Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, Pa.
Now ranked the No. 1 junior college running back, the talent has always been there. His grades, however, have not.
“When I was in high school I had a poor GPA, about a 1.7,” Thompson said. “I had the SAT score, but that GPA killed me. I applied to a lot of D-II schools trying to get in, and they also rejected me.”
An incident at school, Thompson said, also kept him walking at graduation and competing in districts for track. This prevented him from qualifying for the state tournament, despite having the second-best 200-meter dash time in Pennsylvania.
“Getting good grades and doing the right thing off the field,” Thompson said, “that wasn’t important to me in high school, and it held me back.”
Thompson came close to attending Division III Albright College out of high school, but that fell through as well.
“That was the school I thought I’d go to,” Thompson said. “I sent my application in and they told me I didn’t meet the qualifications. I was stressed at that point.
“I didn’t even know anything about junior college until one of my coaches suggested it to me.”
A Cheltenham connection landed Thompson in New York at Nassau Community College, but his stay in Long Island was short. The coach who recruited him there got fired, and then Thompson redshirted his first season.
“After that, I pretty much gave up all hope,” he said. “I started looking around again. I had some high school film and I was a little more wise than I was at the age of 17, so I contacted coaches on my own and put myself out there. All I needed was an opportunity.
“I got in contact with the coaches at Dodge City (junior college). They thought I was real talented and offered me a partial scholarship. The rest from there is history.”
During Thompson’s two seasons with the Conquistadors in Dodge City, Kan., Thompson set the school record for career rushing touchdowns (26) and rushed for 1,298 yards as a sophomore, the fourth highest total in the NJCAA in 2015.
Thompson also became the nation’s No. 1-ranked junior college running back and received heavy interest from Alabama, Arizona State, Florida, Iowa, Louisville and a few Big 12 schools.
“Not trying to sound cocky, but I put in the work just like every other top athlete does,” Thompson said. “So all the attention and accolades I’ve achieved because of it, I just feel it was well deserved.
“I’ve had potential to be where I’m at today. I still feel as though I haven’t peaked. Since I’ve been in college, my game has improved a lot but my maturity is where I’ve made the most strides.”
The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder committed to UF last spring and will enroll in January with two years of eligibility remaining. He returned to his high school Wednesday to sign his letter of intent with the Gators.
Two and a half years ago at that same school, Thompson was on pins and needles trying to get into a Division III program.
“I think about that a lot,” he said. “It’s crazy the way things happen. I’m ecstatic about having the opportunity to go to Florida. Not only be an athlete on the team but be a student, because that’s not an easy school to get into.
“It’s been a rough road to get there. I’m still surprised sometimes that I’ve made it this far.”
— Sugar Cube (@MarkT_RB5) December 16, 2015